Monday, January 20, 2014

North Country Winter: Extreme Snow Shoveling

ShovelingSnow01This season’s crop of unusual weather featured several stretches of bitter December cold the likes of which we usually see in January or February. Injected into the mix were periods of warm temperatures and rain, and in combination, those extremes caused problems for a lot of people—car accidents, frozen pipes, flooding, canceled events, and lots of other bad stuff. In general, though, it was the sort of stuff we North Country folks are accustomed to dealing with.

However, there is one group (of which I’m a member) that has suffered for weeks now, and it’s not over yet.  Despite enduring this lifelong affliction, I’ve never spoken to a professional about it so this amounts to a confession of sorts: I’m a shoveler. I’ll wait a moment for the jokes to clear from your head—“as a writer, you’ve been shoveling it for a long time,” and stuff like that. You’ll get no argument from me. But still, maybe I need help.

The current trouble: ice from three to six inches thick, some of it miserably uneven from tire tracks impressed during slushy stages, has virtually eliminated any possibility of neatly shoveling and clearing the driveway until we get some sort of heat wave. The recent melt helped, but inches of ice remain on most of our tar surface.

As for my obsessive shoveling, a shrink might trace the problem to my mom, and she actually was involved back in the beginning. In the 1960s, when Dad had to be at work by 7 am, he had a terrible time whenever it snowed heavily, which was quite often. Remember that the term “snow removal” in those days applied only to cities. In rural areas, plows plowed until the roads narrowed, and then front-loaders were called to scoop everything up and dump it onto huge snowbanks. And yes, if you’ve heard the stories, it’s true: many of us could have (and have) stepped over the telephone lines at one time or another.

A big storm sometimes caused schools to close, but it had to be big. It was glorious when that happened: a snow-day typically meant rolling over in bed and going back to sleep. But snow-days didn’t happen at work-places no matter what the conditions were outside. Dads had to shovel out their cars, brush them off, and go to work. I wasn’t much for sleeping in, and when I was up with my mom and dad on one such morning, I saw him struggle to remove just enough snow from the car and the driveway to allow him to leave.  Mom, meanwhile, lamented the fact that sleeping upstairs were some healthy young folks, including my two older brothers.

Her comments were my inspiration. When the next storm hit, snow-day or not, I was up early as usual. While Dad shaved hurriedly so he’d have time to attack the snow, I suited up the best I could and headed outside, digging in with a fervor. The average snow shovel in those days was just a plain flat pan at the end of a breakable handle. To complete most snow-shoveling  jobs, the tool itself was secondary to elbow grease and enthusiasm, and I was nothing if not an enthusiastic shoveler.

When Dad came out, he assessed my efforts, thanked me profusely, and headed off to work. I’ll never forget that great feeling of satisfaction as he drove away, the still-square tires thumping rhythmically against the snowy road until they gradually rounded into shape.

And that became my routine, even though I was well short of ten years old. Whenever I was available, he didn’t have to worry about deep snow anymore. With reluctance, my siblings shoveled on many occasions, but I relished the opportunity. If our walkway was already clean, I shoveled at the neighbors, or at the post office across the road, clearing the entry steps, roadside (for parking), and loading dock.

Nothing was more fun than digging out buried cars and pushing them on their way. I became expert at it, learning skills that have served me for a lifetime of freeing my own cars and the vehicles of others. (Wood ashes were added to my repertoire in later years, making the job much easier.)

ShovelingSnow02Since that time, I’ve always been a persistent and prodigious shoveler. I sure hope there are others out there who will have some understanding of my “problem.” No matter how wide or long my driveway has been (and it has sometimes been very long), I didn’t hire anyone to clear it. I always just dug in and shoveled until it was clean … so clean that my mom often asked, “Who plows your driveway?” I kept telling her I shoveled it, but because the banks were so neat, she never seemed to believe me.

And I didn’t shovel because I was too cheap to pay a plow guy. Yes, it saved money, but for me it was just part of house maintenance, most of which I tackled myself unless/until experts were needed. I also shoveled my parents’ driveway in recent years, but since they lived 25 miles away, Jill and I hired a local operator to plow them out whenever it snowed. At the same time, I continued shoveling my own.

I suppose it’s time to come clean about some extreme shoveling I’ve engaged in. I’ll describe one of my top-five shoveling endeavors, but because it wasn’t a one-time thing (I engaged in it for years), maybe it rates #1 … at least in the snow category.

I always wanted to live in a cabin in the woods, and a home we purchased in Clinton County around 1980 (we had three children by then) sort of fit the bill. It was very secluded—three tenths of a mile off a secondary road, and nestled behind a hill and sugarbush. The first 500 feet of the driveway bordered the eastern edge of a farmer’s field. The narrow lane then skirted the sugarbush for the next 1000 feet, a compact path covered by a leafy canopy.

The wooded section offered protection from the wind, but friends warned me about the 500-foot stretch, where brutal winds sometimes built snowdrifts upwards of six feet high.

I sort of believed them, but nature soon confirmed that the extreme snowdrift claims were no exaggeration. It sometimes took only minutes for it to fill in during shoveling, and because the stretch was so long, I simply couldn’t keep up.

There were no options: the car had to be left near the roadside so I would be able to make it to work every day. That, and snowshoes to reach the house, solved my part of the problem.

Hmm … but what about the children, all under the age of ten? How would they catch the bus to school? And groceries? How would they get to the house, more than 1500 feet from the road?

I’ve never ducked hard work, and the ambitious routine I adopted did raise a few eyebrows, even in that tough neighborhood. While it may have seemed unorthodox, it was efficient.

Arriving home between 1 and 2 am, I snowshoed back to the house (ground snow provides plenty of residual light at night). Early every morning, I grabbed the shovel and made sure a path was cleared all the way to the car, three-tenths of a mile away. After starting the car, I returned to the house, loaded all three children onto a toboggan (draped by a blanket on windy days), and hauled them to the road. By that time, the car was comfy warm, and there we sat until the bus arrived.

As winter progressed and the wind built substantial drifts, I kept shoveling that same path, developing a roofless tunnel through which I hauled children and groceries regularly.

ShovelingSnow03Finally, when a big storm hit, the giant drifts were packed solid, and at a steep angle. At that point, as much as it grieved me, I hired a local farmer with a big snow-blower attachment for his tractor. His asking price was $15 (back in the 1980s), but I gladly paid him $25 per job. He took care of us for nearly a decade … but only when the road was plugged. Other than that, I shoveled it.

In the back of my mind, paying extra was probably self-punishment for not completing the job on my own. I tell you, it’s a sickness. It may be time to start looking for a self-help group. They seem to exist for just about anything these days. But what if I discover I’m alone in my affliction? Will I be traumatized for life?  Maybe it’s best to just leave it alone.

And in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that it’s not just snow. In rocky, gravelly conditions, I once dug a hole so enormous, you probably wouldn’t … well, perhaps that’s a story for another day.

Baby steps, after all … and snow is falling, with a forecast of three inches. I have to at least try!

Photos: I come by my ailment honestly. Pictured are scenes from long ago in my mom’s hometown of Churubusco in Clinton County, famous for its wild weather (which is now harnessed by many giant windmills). At the top, on the high snow-banks, is a snow-shoveling crew tasked with clearing a path ahead of the plow on the main road. The other two images are Churubusco village scenes. Again, snow removal in rural areas is a relatively recent development.

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

9 Responses

  1. Rick Hap says:

    Here is found film from 1939 of the snowplows of the tug hill.

  2. stan bunal says:

    Good writing. Good story. Lousy hobby. You can have my share of shoveling. It is high on my list of activities to avoid.

    • Larry says:

      Stan … “good writing” is what you did … using only your first six words to make someone laugh out loud. Way to go!

  3. Paul says:

    Several severe winters in the early seventies really buried the Adirondacks in snow. The deer mortality those years was almost 100%. I am sure some of the Almanack readers can remember those. As kids we were diving off the roof (which we could walk right up with the piles we had shoveled off) into the snow and burying ourselves as we landed! I remember watching a guy snowmobile over the top of his house!

  4. Keith Silliman says:

    Growing up in Western New York, I too became a shoveler. I remember the blizzard of ’77 quite well. The call went out to dig out the fire hydrants for the volunteer fire department. We had one in front of our house, buried under ten feet of snow. My brothers and I were sure we knew where it was. We each started digging in a different place. After a while i noticed they were falling down in the snow and i wasn’t. I started kicking the snow at my feet, and the top of the hydrant appeared. I had been standing on it.

  5. Avon says:

    Sick. Sick, I tell you.
    And I hope it’s contagious.
    I have two strong kids. What do I have to do to infect them? Take ’em three miles from Canada, have ’em read the article, buy all Gooley’s books and sneak ’em under the pillows? I’ll have to give it a lot of thought. A lot.

  6. John Omohundro says:

    Susan and I love to shovel (at least, real snow). A little fresh air and exercise each morning, so that we eat breakfast with pink cheeks. We’ve joked about getting windbreakers to read “Hannawa Falls Mixed Doubles Snowshoveling Team.” We’re both neatniks and exercise fanatics, so it’s all of a piece.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “I’ve never spoken to a professional about it so this amounts to a confession of sorts: I’m a shoveler.”

    “But what if I discover I’m alone in my affliction?”

    I thought I was the odd man out on this one then you come along Lawrence. I’m a shoveler too.I would rather shovel snow than have a noisy,smelly contraption do the work for me.My next door neighbor once offered to snowblow the long driveway where I was a tenant,I refused him kindly. Snow-shoveling can create back problems so you have to be careful at our ages.I am also of the mind that snow-shoveling is a form of exercise that loosens and strengthens certain parts of the anatomy so find it to be beneficial. But still…I am aware that I must be careful.One thing is for certain… I sure as heck like to push snow with a shovel.The people who gripe and moan about the snow – they have no imagination whatsoever.

    The trick with snow-shoveling is to shovel it every few inches instead of waiting until it gets too deep.Much easier on the body this way.If it’s a wet snow and it gets to a foot deep,there’s no way to move it without threat of sprain or pain.Even three inches of wet snow is hard to move.

    I create art with my pushed snow.I don’t build snowmen anymore but I do build walls with towers on either end so that when all of the snow around has melted my project still stands out.Heck,even after the freshly fallen snow has just stopped and the whole area is a-white in it,my art stands out.

    The town library is across the street from where I live.I shovel their snow every winter.I do so voluntarily,I beat the town people to it.I’m out at three in the morning pushing and piling up my mounds and wall in front of this establishment so that when daylight arrives there stands my monument (or the beginning of it),which impresses me quite much.(It don’t take much to excite me!) The more snow the more stand-outish is my work.Their parking lot parallels their sidewalk which must be fifty feet along.Before the town plough arrives I steal snow from the parking lot from fifteen feet out,up to,and over,the curb,then another five feet over the sidewalk where my wall and towers begin.There would not be enough snow in some cases were I not to do this.My last mound (with that ten-inch dump we had here) was the tallest one yet,it went up about eight feet with probably a ten-foot diameter at its base.This may not seem like much but consider you can only pile snow so high when you are so tall,and also it has a tendency to slide down from the top with each scoop tossed upon it. Most of the snow has since melted yet there a small heap remains where my fat tower once stood.I have often thought that if I only had someone else to help me with the shoveling…how huge those walls and towers could be.

    As a boy I had so much fun in the snow,and i’ll never forget some of those long ago cold winter days and nights growing up on Long Island.Obviously that child spirit is still alive in me which I am ever so grateful for.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox